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Interview: Answers About Blind Computer Use

This week, we questioned Curtis Chung, Director of Technology for the National Federation of the Blind, the group that is suing AOL over access for blind users. Today Curtis explains the reason for the AOL lawsuit, tells us how to make Web pages more accessible for blind users, and generally talks about life as a blind programmer. Excellent reading! (more below)

1) University computer labs and the blind
by sinnergy

I am the system administrator for a rather prestigious and middle sized university in the MidWest. I am responsible for a number of computer labs in my department. As usual, our budget is extraordinarily tight and it is difficult to replace new machines on a timely basis, let alone make them more accessible to those with disabilites. To the best of my knowledge, I have to have a blind or visually challenged student or faculty member use my labs or ask for interfaces that will let them use my labs.

What are some easy things that I can do, or what products should I purchase to allow visually challenged students use computer technology here? We have invested money in purchasing large monitors for all the computers, for students with bad sight, but I fear that eventually we'll run into a situation where we will need to accomodate a blind person at our workstations. I want to make sure that we at least know what we should do when (not if) we need to do this.

I assume here that the workstations are Windows 95/98 based. If this is incorrect, then what I am about to say is not going to be valid. Windows and/or DOS are the two operating systems where the blind have achieved the greatest access.

At a minimum, you should have available in your software inventory a screen access program for the blind. This does not need to be installed on any of your lab's machines unless or until the need arises. With a screen access program for the blind, a student at your institution should be able to use standard word processing software (e.g., Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect), e-mail client software such as Eudora or Outlook Express, data base programs such as Microsoft Access, and a variety of other Windows applications.

There are a number of screen access programs for Windows currently available, ranging in price from $500 to $800. Someone on your staff should familiarize him/herself with the operation of at least one of these programs. I recommend using JAWS for Windows from Henter-Joyce, Inc. This is by far the most popular and ubiquitous of the screen access programs for the blind. Other programs include Window-Eyes (from GW Micro) and Slimware Window Bridge (from Syntha-Voice Computers in Canada. Contact information for these three companies follows:

Henter-Joyce, Inc.
11800 31st Court N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805
(727) 803-8000 or (800) 336-5658
Fax: (727) 803-8001
World Wide Web:

GW Micro
725 Airport North Office Park
Fort Wayne, IN 46825
(219) 489-3671
Fax: (219) 489-2608
World Wide Web:

Syntha-Voice Computers, Inc.
800 Queenston Road, Suite 304
Stoney Creek, Ontario L8G 1A7, CANADA
(905) 662-0565
Fax: (905) 662-0568
World Wide Web:

2) What can I do, what are my responsibilities?
by handorf

It is difficult for me to understand, as a programmer, the limitations and efforts I need to make in UI design in my projects. What approaches do you recommend and which should be avoided? Do you have any examples of a mainstream project that was done well from this perspective?

I am assuming Windows as the core operating system. Programmers should start with the assumption that the blind user will be running a screen access program. This means that by and large, any application developed under Windows does not need to be self-voicing. Self-voicing applications may be developed if one wants to write a special purpose application for the blind, but in the main, it is best to assume that the blind person will be using the computer with the help of a screen access program.

Given this assumption, therefore, the question then becomes one of how data from an application is to be presented on the screen and how application functions are to be invoked if the application is to be fully usable to a person who is blind. Tomes have been written on the subject by the fine folks at Microsoft. Visit their web site at In the long run, the ideal is to have applications written to use the Microsoft Active Accessibility API, described on the above web site. However, in the short run, here are a few helpful suggestions:

  • 1. All prompts for edit boxes should be followed with a colon, since most screen access programs will detect this and improve responses.
  • 2. All user functions must be available using the keyboard, either through menus, controls, or shortcut keys. If shortcut keys are used, they should be well documented.
  • 3. Standard Windows colour pallets must be used so that anyone choosing to alter their colour scheme for improved visibility will not be hampered. This includes *not* hard coding colours, but setting them such that changes to the environment colour scheme will not render information invisible.
  • 4. Do not impart meaning through colour alone. This is not only problematic for people using screen access programs, requiring extra configuration to derive such information, but it is pretty useless for people who are colour blind. A typical example of this bad practice is in Microsoft Word 97, where a red or green squiggly line denotes either a spelling or grammatical error. People who are red or green colour blind find this not to be very helpful.
  • 5. Always include text captions for controls.
  • 6. If any amount of text is to be presented to a user in a multi-line format, ensure that an insertion pointer is provided within that text when the user tabs to that information. It is not helpful to display a long set of instructions or copyright information in a label or other control that doesn't accept keyboard focus.
  • 7. Try not to design screens that require scrolling to access information or controls. Obviously, there are going to be situations where this cannot be avoided. However, these situations should be the exception--not the norm.
  • 8. Do not place too many controls on a single screen. Not only is this more manageable for everyone regardless of disability, but it also increases the chances of any accelerator keys being unique for each control on a given screen. For example, you probably would like to avoid having two controls, each of which uses the ALT+E key combination to be activated.
  • 9. If information is to be displayed graphically (for example, a chart or image), ensure that there is at least some textual description of this available. If it is possible to make the information available in a tabular format as an alternative, this would be better. I fully appreciate that space and interpretation can place limits on this.
  • 10. Making an application accessible nonvisually should not mean that you eliminate graphics altogether. Software is used by everyone--blind and sighted alike--and therefore requires features which are appealing to both groups.
An example of a project which resulted in an application with greater accessibility is Lotus Notes Release 5. Earlier versions of Lotus Notes were a problem for many blind people using Windows. More often than not, only a limited subset of the Notes application could be used and only after a considerable amount of customization was performed to the screen access technology. IBM and Lotus teamed up and made a concerted effort to ensure that Notes 5 was accessible. They made a conscious decision to implement Microsoft Active Accessibility.

3) ADA and AOL lawsuit
by ArtPepper

Would you briefly explain the type of access you are expecting AOL (and presumbably all other web businesses) to provide?

To begin with, let me explain that the quarrel we have with America Online has to do with the accessibility of the software we *MUST* *RUN* in the Windows environment in order to use any AOL service. This is *NOT* releated directly to any question of accessibility to web pages. To put it simply, the AOL software, all versions, behaves in such a way as to make it difficult if not impossible for screen access programs for the blind to understand what is being displayed on the screen. What we are asking for is to have AOL software that works well with screen access software for the blind.

As for other "web businesses," we are asking that anyone who puts up a web page follow accessibility guidelines developed and promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium through its Web Access Initiative and that in addition, they consider some other features which will enhance nonvisual access:

  • 1. Provide a hypertext link to any labeled graphic which it is important for the web page reader to know about. This will enable the blind user to hear the description of a graphic by landing on it using the Tab key.
  • 2. Consider incorporating a link which allows the user to jump past all of the repetitive stuff which seems to be typical of most web pages. Look at to see an example of what I am talking about. On this page, there is a "skip to main content" link which is heard by the blind user but never seen by a sighted person.
  • 3. Keep forms fairly simple.
4) Question
by Anonymous Coward

Why do you believe that a private company should be forced into providing a service? Why not let the market dictate?

Throughout all of our history, private companies have been required to do certain things and perform certain actions which society deemed to be beneficial to its members. This is why we have such things as the minimum wage, civil rights laws which protect members of racial minorities, and anti-trust laws and regulations. Throughout all of our history, whenever we have proposed laws requiring private companies to do certain things, they have always been resisted. Checks and balances are the way of any democratic society.

When a private company becomes sufficiently large and ubiquitous, it has the very real potential of setting a de facto standard which often must be followed even by its competitors. If the standard is good -- that is, not damaging to a particular class of individuals -- then we don't have a problem. However, if the standard is bad -- excluding one or more groups of people -- then, it needs to be challenged. This is why I believe that there are times when a private company must be compelled to terminate a practice which market forces have not encouraged it to stop.

5) Fundamental problems in Web architechture?
by Matt Bridges

Sorry for the long-winded lead in to the question. Recently I tried to get a blind friend's computer to access the web in a blind-accessible fashion. I tried to do this with a screen-reader program, but a few major problems came up: when the text was in columns or frames, the reader software kept reading from left to right, mixing the two or more columns. Also, the screen reader could not decipher the graphical buttons that many pages use for even simple functions like "next" or "up one level." In addition, few web pages currently offer a text-only version of their pages. However, if someone on a PC goes to, it takes them to the PC section, while a Mac automatically goes to the Mac section. This auto-redirection seems like it would be the perfect way to have two pages, one text-only and one graphical, and do it transparantly for both blind and sighted users. Do you think that such a standard for having two web pages will ever become commonplace?

Your description of problems accessing a web page with a screen reader is all too common for those of us who are blind. Through better web design and more intelligence on the part of screen reading software, our web page access problems are waning. However, there are still many web sites which cause problems for someone who is blind--either because the format is too complex or because of the esclusive use of unlabeled graphics or image maps to get to various places on the web site.

Having a web site where a text-only page is automatically displayed for a blind user sounds like a great idea--except...

  • How would the web page know that I was blind? More sighted people use PC's than blind people.
  • What if I wanted to bring up the non-text version because I wanted to show the web site to a sighted friend who was looking over my shoulder?
What I am trying to say in a long-winded way is that I don't think this auto-redirection is a good idea. I am certainly not against text-only versions of web pages and while I sometimes wonder how well the text-only versions are updated as compared to the graphical version, I believe that the user should have the choice of whether or not to bring up the text-only page.

6) Open Source and blind users
by Noryungi

This is a question that comes from a very frustrated "user". I worked for almost a year for a special european technical agency for the blind, so I guess I probably have a little bit more of experience than the average computer user.

Anyway, I have been helping a blind friend for over a year, now, trying to get his Braille portable computer to work properly within Windows 95. Let me just put it this way: it's a nightmare. This machine costs more than US$ 10,000 and it just does not work. The company that made the machine refuses to support things as basic as a modem (required to connect to the ISP) or software, such as Lynx, that make it a lot more easier to connect to the information he needs.

My friend is just as frustrated as I am, especially since he bought the computer to be able to attend programming classes and basic Computer Science courses. The university requires all these classes to be based on Windows 95 only. Now, he can't attend these classes because his stupid machine does not work with the GUI we all love to hate .

In your opinion:

  • A. Is there any good computer/supplier for blind user that *have* to use Windows?
  • B. Is it possible that blind users (such as my friend) will be "locked-out" of CS classes because of Windows predominance?
  • C. What can we (the "Open Source Community") do to make our solutions (Linux/BSD/whatever) the #1 computer solution for blind users?
A. There is no "computer/supplier" for blind users who *HAVE* to use Windows. Generally speaking, those of us who need to use Windows purchase a standard Pentium machine and add on a screen access program (see Question 1 above). While this solution isn't perfect, it does allow us to run enough Windows applications so as to get some benefit from the operating system and related software. In fact, if we want to obtain competitive and gainful employment in the corporate workplace, it is *ESSENTIAL* that we use Windows. Whether we like it or not, today, Windows is the operating system of choice in most offices.

B. The predominance of Windows does indeed pose a significant problem for blind students in computer science classes. More often than not, the programming software used in these classes does not work with screen access technology for the blind. A blind student must therefore learn to work judiciously and creatively with sighted readers--the fully plug-compatible, biological interface that works with any computer. This is to say that a blind computer science student with sufficient determination and good basic blindness skills can matriculate through a computer science curriculum. I would be the first to say that we need full nonvisual access to the programming and other tools used in programming classes. To this end, we are working with Microsoft and other companies to see what can be done to improve the accessibility of development tools. However, I agree with Microsoft that the first priority for access needs to be focused on software that we use to perform our jobs. Matters have now progressed to the point where we can begin pressing Microsoft to focus more attention on the programming and development tools. (In case you are wondering, this is not only a concern with Microsoft programming tools. I feel the same way about software from Borland and other companies, too.)

C. In order for Linux to be the number one solution for the blind, it must be as widely accepted as Windows in the workplace. Unless or until that happens, Linux may be useful for some blind individuals at home, but we, the blind, must insist on having access to the applications used by our sighted peers at work.

7) XML
by RobotWisdom

Scientific American claimed recently that XML would make things better for blind users. Do you agree, or is this hype?

I don't know enough about XML to answer the question. What I do know is that XML is very likely to become important for the digital talking books which we, the blind, will probably want to read in the years to come.

8) Intonations
by RobotWisdom

A blind user on named Chaumont Devin suggested that the feature he'd most like to see in a text-to-speech application would involve changing the intonation as it approached a comma, period, or question mark. Is this a generally-agreed-on desirable feature, and has it been implemented yet?

Screen access programs for the blind generally control the intonation of any speech coming out of the computer. Many of them change the tone of the speech based on punctuation. Some blind people like this feature while others prefer to hear the actual punctuation character (e.g., comma, period, etc.). The important point here is choice. Let the blind user decide how punctuation should be handled. Fortunately, this is now possible with today's crop of screen access technology.

9) Attitudes
by Slamtilt

When the lawsuit against AOL was discussed on /., there were a fair number of posts that essentially commented "Why the hell are blind people trying to access the web anyway? It's a visual medium!". Do you run into this attitude a lot, and what do you find to be good ways of overcoming it?

I confess that I have not run into this attitude as often as I might have expected. Most people I talk with think it is wonderful that the blind can access the web at all. Some of them, unfortunately, also think it is wonderful that a blind person can carry on an intelligent conversation, let alone hold down a competitive job, raise a family, travel independently around the country, etc. Most times, the blind are thought of as people who, at best, require a lot of help from others. Rarely do people, at the subconscious level, have the image of a blind person as a competent, mobile individual, carrying a briefcase, walking down the street with confidence.

As to those people who say that the Web is primarily a visual medium, I say "nonsense!" Most of the informational content you see on the web today is text. Yes, there are pictures, animated presentations, graphics, and so on. But the really meaningful content is still text, and text is far from being an exclusively visual medium.

10) The Profession
by Vicegrip

It strikes me as a monumental task to be a software developer without the benefit of one's vision. In many ways, I fear the loss of my sight more than just about anything in this world. I was wondering what skills you have developped over the years that have allowed you to succeed in a profession that is inherently visual in nature? What changes to the way we do things, do you think, would have made your job much easier for you?

I am sorry that you fear blindness as much as you do. You know, blindness is feared almost as much as cancer -- certainly more than AIDS. It is this fear that has made it difficult for many of us to secure meaningful employment. I understand the fear, however, and offer what limited help I can to alleviate it.

Software development is a visual exercise only because of the tools used to develop software. At the core (pardon the pun), thinking up a good program and ensuring that its logic is sound is far from visual. When I attended computer programming class some 22 years ago, my fellow classmates would have their code ready days before I did. They would execute ten or even fifteen compilation and test runs while I plodded on writing and then desk-checking my program. I usually got my program working after two compiles and maybe three test runs.

I also wrote programs which displayed information on CRT devices which I could not use without sighted assistance. This did not trouble me greatly. I wrote the code at my desk using a Braille Writer (a Braille typewriter) and a keypunch machine. When I wanted to test my program, I sat in front of the terminal with a sighted assistant who would describe what was happening on the screen while I pressed the keys.

The basic skills which I, as a blind programmer, brought to the programming tasks were these: proficiency in the reading and writing of Braille; a logical mind; skill in hiring, managing, and (if necessary) firing sighted readers; good note-taking skills; and the ability to articulate my needs to my employer and to come up with my own alternative technology.

My job would have been made much easier if I didn't have to constantly re-educate new co-workers about my competence and normality. For example, while I take the act of watching television for granted, and while I use the term "watch" as a part of my normal conversation, many people with whom I came into contact insisted that I "listened" to the boob tube. I had to remind them repeatedly that I preferred the term "watch" as a way of fitting in with everybody else rather than emphasizing the fact that I couldn't see by always saying "listen." When I went on my initial job interviews, many years ago, some interviewers were more interested in knowing how I would find my way to the bathroom rather than the programming languages I had learned in computer school. Needless to say, I found this rather frustrating.

For a blind person who wants to write software today, it is ideal to have a text-based language which can be edited using the editor of his/her choice. This allows the blind person to concentrate more on programming and less on dealing with cumbersome and inefficient development tools which use graphical interfaces to make them (for the sighted) easier to use. On the other side of the coin, it is important, I believe, for the blind software developer to understand how to write programs which produce graphics -- even though he/she may not be able to see the graphics. Exempting a blind computer programming student from any requirement to understand graphical programming does a tremendous disservice to the student and hampers advancement in the profession. For example, while I myself don't use the mouse to drag and drop or point and click, I understand how the mouse should be used. With this knowledge, I can assist sighted coworkers who may not understand the workings of the computer as well as I do.

11) Information Structure and navigability
by tangram

A lot of people have asked how to make web pages more readable. Could you also address how to make them more navigable?

You can know a lot about the content of a web page based on the formatting. Stuff in the left column is probably menus, stuff at the top can probably be ignored, etc. I can easily scan a page without having to actually read it, and find what's relevant quickly.

I try to imagine navigating a page serially with a braille keyboard or listening to it. I can't imagine keeping enough information in mind to achieve the same kind of scannability.

How can I better structure a page for ease of navigation?

I agree with you that web pages which contain repetitive information at the top are time-consuming to navigate. From a blindness perspective, it would be far better if each page on a particular web site were unique and did not so closely resemble other pages on the site. For example, while shopping at the other day, I found myself getting quite frustrated at the amount of time it was taking me to move past the stuff at the beginning of the page to read the results of my search query.

It seems to me that there are two ways to fix this problem. First, the repetitive stuff could be placed at the bottom, and all new information could be displayed at the top. Alternatively, you could include a hidden hypertext link on the page which might be alt-tagged as "Jump to Main Content." The link itself could be invisibly imbedded in a picture or logo. The alt-tag would be spoken by the screen reader but not shown on the screen. For an example of how this is done, see the URL:

Next week: a surprise guest. Tune in Monday @ noon!

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Interview: Answers About Blind Computer Use

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